Thursday, February 25, 2010

WRITING DURING THE NEW DEAL

This week, I initiated a new theme about New Orleans books, ahead of schedule, for the Fortnightly Literary Club here in New Iberia with a review of Lyle Saxon, one of Louisiana’s under-sung writers and a leader in the preservation of buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Saxon gained popularity as a chronicler of the history and culture of Louisiana and was a reporter and feature writer for “The Times Picayune” and “The New Orleans Item” during the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. One of his many projects included the Federal Writers' Project created by Franklin Roosevelt, a project to support and preserve the arts. The Project elicited a lot of criticism by those who felt that the U. S. defense program needed funds that were used to promote the artists and writers. Would that such a project existed today! A country is diminished spiritually when it doesn’t support artists and writers, in my opinion.

The Federal Writers' Project began in 1935 and ended in 1939 because of opposition to support of The Arts, but continued to function in some states throughout the 40’s. The Project attracted 300 writers from 24 states who produced valuable oral histories, books, and other papers documenting the social and economic life of families and communities during the 30’s, following the Great Depression.

The most notable books produced by the WPA Writing Project were the 48 state guides to America, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, which were compiled by writers in the Project and published by individual states. The guidebooks covered the history and culture of all the states, photographs and automobile tours of each state’s principal attractions. A valuable component of the Writing Project included slave narratives based on the life experiences of former slaves, complete with photographs.

Lyle Saxon produced THE NEW ORLEANS CITY GUIDE, THE LOUISIANA GUIDE, and GUMBO YA-YA: A COLLECTION OF LOUISIANA FOLK TALES while serving as State Project Director for Louisiana. His work stands alongside notables such as John Steinbeck, Frank Yerby, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, May Swenson, and a stellar group of other American writers. The major goal of the Federal Writers’ Project was to provide employment, but the Project published many histories of people throughout the United States and in regions that had been previously unexplored.

For those readers who haven’t read Saxon’s books about Louisiana, there are four outstanding books, which have been reprinted by Pelican Press in New Orleans: FATHER MISSISSIPPI, FABULOUS NEW ORLEANS, OLD LOUISIANA, and LAFITTE THE PIRATE. Many of Saxon’s biographers say he “created people,” in that he took in and encouraged anyone who possessed even a small talent for art or writing. I might add that in addition to giving them a place to stay, he provided bourbon and good food so that he was always entertaining hordes of people. Some biographers say that he was a better raconteur than writer; however, I read and re-read all of his books and regard him as a superb journalist and non-fiction writer.

Saxon was a close friend of Weeks Hall, The Master of the Shadows here in New Iberia, and made visits to his “cousin,” as he called Hall since Hall had provided blood for an emergency transfusion when Saxon developed appendicitis. Saxon was also a frequent guest at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches where Miss Cammie Henry provided a cabin and meals, gratis, provided that he would produce a work of art. Saxon’s restored 18th century cabin on the grounds of Melrose is still a major tourist attraction at the old plantation. He wrote CHILDREN OF STRANGERS, his only novel, while sojourning at Melrose. Saxon is a character in the essay I wrote about Miss Cammie Henry in my book about Louisiana women, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL
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